Could there be any more distinguishing feature of just about any kind of top than its sleeves? Think about it. When you go shopping for ready-to-wear for the upper half of your body, unless you’re just browsing aimlessly, you probably have a general idea of one aspect of the top you’re seeking – the sleeves, in particular, their length.
Let’s face it: you can cut your sleeve at any place along the full length of your arm, but you might not like how it looks – or works. In the worlds of style and fashion, there are some specific lengths that have been discovered to be most flattering.
If you’re shopping for a winter coat, clearly, you’d be a fool not to look for long sleeves (notwithstanding fashion designers’ attempts to get us to think that three-quarter sleeves with gloves would be a reasonable substitute). If you’re looking for a cool, summer top, you probably aren’t looking for long sleeves, however, you might not be sure whether you want cap sleeves, short sleeves (and what length) or elbow-length. And it’s exactly the same when we create our own clothes. I think sleeve length, in particular, is one of the most crucial parts of a flattering and useful piece of clothing. And not every length works best for everyone, although a commercial pattern with a short sleeve view will be very specific. Be brave! Be adventurous! Throw caution to the wind! Cut the sleeves whatever length you want! Back up a bit with me: I’m interested in sleeves.
Let’s start small. Sleeves are arm coverings. Let’s face it: sleeves are largely functional. Unless you live close to the equator, you likely feel the need for an arm covering from time to time. Of course, you could throw a wrap around you but think about it. Isn’t a sleeve a lot more functional? Consider getting into and out of your car with your keys, wallet, umbrella, child who has to be wrestled out of one of those booster seat contraptions – oh, and let’s not forget that you have to put on your mask in 2020. Oops, you forgot? Get back in the car, put everything down and start again. Then consider having to keep a wrap around you at the same time.
Well, for my money, I’d prefer to have sleeves attached to my bodice. So, apart from strapless and one-shoulder evening gowns (oh, yes, I love strapless and one-shoulder evening gowns, or at least I used to) and summer tank tops (which I’m wearing less and less as I get older), the sleeve consideration is a big one when I’m shopping ready-to-wear or sewing for myself. And since I do sew, I can decide what sleeve would be best.
Over the past few years, we’ve been subjected to all kinds of impractical sleeves. That’s the kindest way I can put it. If I’m being honest, I really think that hideous sleeves are being hoisted on us by designers every time we turn around.
Don’t they know that a well-proportioned, simple sleeve will serve us best in the long-term? *sigh* Well, I just make my tops these days. So, when I got into my most recent one (and the last summer one for this year, I hope), the sleeves became an instant quandary.
Finding a Flattering Length
Not every sleeve length is as flattering as the next one – and not every sleeve length works for every woman. It’s a matter of proportion. And there are so many choices.
This reared its head recently – you may remember this recent shirt project. The pattern, Butterick 6324 offers a sleeve length that’s somewhere between an elbow length and a short sleeve. I opted to cut it according to the pattern and roll twice. Much better on me.
I’ve also found that I like a three-quarter sleeve on me when it works for functionality. There’s something very flattering about this length on most women. In fact, whenever I’m wearing a long-sleeved, collared shirt, I like the look of a turned-back sleeve even better than the sleeve left long. I even like this look on a man. It’s just my personal aesthetic.
I had a length of rayon knit that is very soft and has a lovely drape. I’d been looking forward to working with it since I’ve recently been making shirts which is great but different. When I started this most recent one, I had already made the pattern with long sleeves, so I knew that I liked it in general.
This time, I wanted short sleeves. And I know from having created my own bodice and sleeve sloper, that I have a few lengths that work for me. The short-sleeve length included in most commercial patterns is not it.
The good news is that my most flattering length is usually shorter than the one provided, so, I can always cut it as designed, then I can shorten to the perfect length. I’ve also taken to shortening RTW short sleeves lately.
The difference between lengths is often subtle, but when you find the right length, I think it can make all the difference. when you sew your own tops, you can experiment. I do every time I make something.
Sewing Sleeves In
And of course, sleeves have to be set in well. My personal sleeve-setting journey started back in sewing classes in junior high school where I learned to properly set-in a sleeve. As a result, that’s the method I’ve adhered to for all my sewing life – until recently.
Although I did sew with “knits” when I was very young, those knits were not like the knits of today. They were, in fact, more like stable knits of today. Remember crimplene? (If not, I wrote about it back a while ago). I mention this because you can use the traditional set-in sleeve method with these kinds of fabrics. Anyone who sews with today’s jerseys etc. with a stretch factor of something like 35% knows that this is next to impossible. So, I’ve had to learn to sew in sleeves (they are not really “set-in” in the true sense) before sewing up the side seams. And I’ve had to force myself to use this method when sewing shirts. Of course, sleeves in shirts are quite different from sleeves in jackets. A sleeve head in a jacket is so important. In a shirt, not so much.
Anyway, here we are in August and I’m just finishing up summer sewing. I think it might be time to move onto fall planning – I just hope the fall isn’t as unpredictable as the spring and summer of 2020 have been! (And I don’t mean the weather!)